SA rugby might be a victim of the Boks’ success
SA’s top players are plying their trade overseas during the peak of their careers, leading to a loss in talent for local franchises.
SA Rugby has accepted that many of the country’s best players will opt to play their club rugby overseas during the prime of their careers. Unfortunately, over the past decade the declining socioeconomic situation in South Africa has accelerated the exodus to the northern hemisphere.
Over the past six years, director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and his coaching staff have worked around the logistical issue of managing an elite player pool spread across Europe, Japan and South Africa.
Until recently, assistant coach Felix Jones was based in Europe and tasked with monitoring the players of interest competing in the respective northern leagues.
Though these coaches have highlighted the challenge of managing players scattered across the globe, they have built a successful unit, and the results speak for themselves.
But, in a sense, the wider South African rugby community has become the victim of that success. Seventeen of the 2023 World Cup squad members were based abroad. That number is likely to swell in the coming years, and more than half of the squad that heads to Australia in 2027 may be based at European or Japanese clubs.
Although that shouldn’t affect the prospects of another World Cup title – there is already talk of the Boks pushing for an unprecedented “three-peat” – it’s clear how the continuing exodus will dilute the potency of the South African franchises and their quest for silverware in the European tournaments.
In 2021, Daily Maverick crunched the numbers and found that upwards of 500 South Africans were playing professional rugby for foreign clubs around the world. Closer analysis revealed that 200 were competing in elite tournaments such as France’s Top 14 and D2, the English Premiership and Japan’s League One.
Those numbers raised the question: what would the South African rugby landscape look like if the majority of those players remained in the country?
The Currie Cup Premier Division would be as strong as most top leagues, and a few First Division sides would give overseas clubs a run for their money. The franchises would be spoilt for choice in every position and have the strength in depth to challenge for titles in tournaments such as the United Rugby Championship (URC) and the Champions Cup.
That was certainly the case some 12 to 15 years ago, when South African rugby was at its peak across all levels.
The Springboks won the 2007 World Cup, the 2009 series against the British & Irish Lions, and the subsequent Tri-Nations. The Bulls won three Super Rugby titles between 2007 and 2010, and the 2010 final between the Bulls and Stormers served as an advertisement for SA’s dominance.
Local situation now
Thirteen years later, and the Boks have re-established themselves as a dominant force, winning back-to-back World Cup titles. But at franchise level it’s very different.
Although SA’s outstanding school and junior rugby structures continue to produce top athletes, a large number of young players pursue opportunities abroad. Relatively few stick with a franchise – or remain based in SA – for the bulk of their careers.
In the past, players often spent a season or two abroad before returning. Percy Montgomery returned from Wales in 2005 to join the Boks on their journey to the 2007 World Cup.
Every member of the 30-man squad that lifted that trophy in France had played for a South African franchise in the preceding Super Rugby season.
By the 2011 World Cup, four of the 30 squad members were based overseas. That climbed to eight in 2015, and 10 in 2019. After Erasmus’s side won the World Cup in Japan, a further 13 squad members decided to play their club rugby abroad.
This year, 17 Boks began the season at European or Japanese clubs before travelling to the World Cup with the national side. Two players – Willie le Roux (Bulls) and Vincent Koch (Sharks) – have returned to play in SA, and three – Siya Kolisi (Racing 92), Steven Kitshoff (Ulster) and Marvin Orie (Perpignan) – have joined the local contingent in Europe.
Return and departure
It’s encouraging when top players return and make an impact with a local team. Bok tighthead Wilco Louw, who won a Premiership title with English club Harlequins in 2021, has been outstanding for the Bulls during the early stages of this season’s URC. Bok backs Warrick Gelant and Courtnall Skosan are now with the Stormers after their respective stints in the northern hemisphere.
Since returning from France in 2022, Eben Etzebeth has set the example for the Sharks, as has an ageing Willem Alberts for the Lions.
After spending a decade in Europe, Ruan Pienaar has been a revelation for the Cheetahs and recently guided them to a Currie Cup title.
Yet, every year the exodus continues. Former Sharks and Bok prop Thomas du Toit has starred for Bath in his first season with the English side, and former Stormers lock Ernst van Rhyn has made an impact for the Sale Sharks.
Du Toit missed out on selection for the 2023 World Cup squad, and Van Rhyn has never been part of the Bok set-up, but the departure of these “middle-tier” players certainly hurts the South African system as a whole. The franchises would benefit if more of these players remained in SA.
Bulls director of rugby Jake White has already called for a restriction on overseas-based Boks selections, as that may encourage more players to remain at home and push for Test honours (before going abroad). But SA Rugby is wary of forcing players to choose between a great financial opportunity overseas and the chance to represent their country. Heavy restrictions on selections certainly backfired in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, when the Boks recorded some of their worst results.
It’s hoped that the rise of private equity in South African rugby will mitigate the situation, and that an increase in resources will ensure the better teams bolster their depth and compete for silverware in tournaments such as the Champions Cup.
The Bulls have made progress in this area – and Louw’s successful return may be viewed as an encouraging precedent – as have the Sharks, even though their recent results leave a lot to be desired. Once the Stormers unlock the full potential of their equity deal, they will have the means to make more key recruitments.
In the long term, the Boks will benefit from more top players committing to South African teams and remaining in the country.
The recent World Cup successes have shown that the Boks can succeed even though almost half of the squad are based overseas, but a balance needs to be maintained.
The logistical challenge of managing a Bok contingent that is based mostly in Europe and Japan may be too great to overcome. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.